In 1969, Ron Ridenhour – a Vietnam veteran – wrote a letter to Congress and the Pentagon which exposed the My Lai massacre to the American public and the world. He went on to become an award-winning investigative journalist but died suddenly at the age of 52. The annual Ridenhour Prizes – awarded by the Nation Institute and Fertel Foundationfor the past four years – memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career. They honor people who articulate unpopular truths, who act bravely and put their reputations at risk in order to strengthen our democracy.
Yesterday, at a packed and spirited gathering at the National Press Club in DC, the Ridenhour Prizes for Truth-Telling, Outstanding Book, and Courage were presented to Donald Vance (an American contractor in Iraq turned whistle blower), Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and President Jimmy Carter, respectively.
In introducing Chandrasekaran, Ted Koppel – whose news program America Held Hostage was created in 1979 to monitor the Iranian hostage crisis before eventually morphing into Nightline – said of Carter: “He was good enough to remind me of the role that he and his administration played in my professional good fortune and suggested that five percent of my income over the past 28 years contributed to the Carter Center might be an appropriate way of…” – he trailed off to laughter and applause.
Koppel then noted his own recent NPR commentarythat compared similar elements of Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and the German film The Lives of Others. The film focuses on the impact of the Stasi – the East German secret police – on the lives of some theatre people and, ultimately, the impact those individuals have on a senior Stasi officer. Koppel said there was a clear message in the film that “when a regime places a higher value on ideological loyalty than it does on honesty or creativity or even efficiency, that regime has already sown the seeds of its own destruction. Which brings me to Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Hardly a replica of East Germany in the 1980’s but replete with sufficient similarities to warn us of what can happen when political loyalty is allowed to substitute for competence…. Rajiv’s portrayal… makes the tragedy of Iraq today all the greater. He makes you wonder again and again of what might have been – if only….”
If only, indeed. And if only some of our political leaders today possessed the courage and wisdom, the grace and humility, of President Jimmy Carter. Rabbi Leonard Beerman introduced Carter as the recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize. Beerman is the Founding Rabbi of the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and a past President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis. He spoke eloquently, saying that Carter “has fashioned a career of extraordinary accomplishment…out of what I believe is most important – a persistent moral sensibility. Even about the most sensitive and contentious issues – such as the rights of the Palestinians, for example.”
He spoke of Carter’s conviction and guiding principal that “every human being is a disclosure of the divine,” and also that “in the geography of [Carter’s] conscience there are no borders.” Beerman quoted Kafka in recognizing a universally important aspect Carter’s work: “You can hold back from the suffering of the world, and you have free permission to do so. And it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back maybe the one suffering you could have avoided.” He closed powerfully with a passage scrawled by Walt Whitman that he had found in the Library of Congress: “Uncage in my heart a thousand new strengths and unknown ardours and terrible extremes,” and then he wished Carter “a thousand new strengths.”
Carter began by speaking of The Prize for Truth-Telling recipient, Donald Vance, “who has demonstrated in his own experiences and his writings and his courage the ability to reveal some of the most despicable aspects of our own nation’s policies.” (Vance is a Navy veteran, voted twice for George Bush, was a supporter of the war in Iraq and a contractor there, but was tortured and detained for three months by US forces at a military prison camp. It is also notable that he was introduced by documentary filmmaker, Rory Kennedy, whose HBO film The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib examines the horror of the scandal and its impact on our nation’s standing in the world) Carter continued, “We used to raise high the banner of human rights and now I think Donald has pointed out that this is not something we can do any more. And I hope that in the future that will be changed.”
Carter offered that what he most wanted to say was that he was “humbled and grateful for this award. But the higher courage that I would like to honor is among the Israelis and the Palestinians who have constantly been frustrated year after year. But have persisted in their search for peace with justice…. A half century of suffering, of death, of persecution, and of fear, experienced by the people of Israel and Palestine…[Yet] consistently, for three decades, I’ve seen public opinion polls inside of Israel that show that more than 60 percent of the citizens approve of the exchange of Palestinian land for peace. And in January, a poll conducted by the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem revealed that 81 percent of all Palestinians share this same desire.”
Carter said he wrote Palestine Peace not Apartheid to describe the plight of the Palestinians and the desperate need for debate in the United States in order to rejuvenate a Middle East peace process that has now been dormant for six years. He said history has shown that – with the exception of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – progress is only possible when the United States plays its historic role “as honest broker,” with the trust and respect of both sides. He suggested that the Bush administration had abandoned this role that six previous presidents – three Republicans and three Democrats – had been faithful to. He closed with a prayer “for our own elected officials of both parties, and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, that they would have the courage to face the facts and to do what is necessary to return America to its honored position as a peacemaker.” Carter received a standing ovation. There was a sense of sanity and commitment inside the room even as leaflets were distributed outside describing him as anti-Israel.
After the ceremony, he held a well-attended press conference. There were many questions and the old Jimmy Carter came out – well versed as ever on such particular matters as cellulose and biofuel energy. He spoke in support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria (“I was glad that she went. When there is a crisis, the best way to help resolve the crisis is to deal with the people who are instrumental in the problem.” He also noted that she was simply fulfilling the Iraq Study Group proposals). And he spoke of his potential support for a presidential candidate who would work evenhandedly to bring peace to the Middle East (but also noted how difficult it is to speak the truth and get elected). But Carter again made it clear why he was in DC yesterday: “The main reason I came is to express my hope that we’ll see the peace process rejuvenated concerning Israel and the Palestinians. And that there would be an element of courage in this country to resort back to what was the policy of all the presidents, I would say, prior to this administration. Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, me, all the way back to Harry Truman… to try to take a balanced position – enough to let both sides have trust in us, confidence in us.”
The three men honored with Ridenhour Prizes yesterday all demonstrate how trust and confidence can be inspired with some fearless truth-telling and dedication to one’s ideals.